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Research tips - news and current affairs

Tarja Moles helps you develop a journalist's nose for researching news and current affairs

Current affairs and news provide both openings and fodder for your writing. Regardless of whether you want to write news pieces, or want to use the news as a source to inform your writing, effective research skills are essential.

Finding leads
‘To find news leads journalists frequently get tip-offs through their contact networks and from the general public,’ says Simon Hall, a BBC news correspondent and the author of the TV Detective series (www.thetvdetective.com). If you’re not a journalist, it may be difficult to write actual news stories. However, by being resourceful in coming up with topical ideas and coupling these with some in-depth research, you can approach editors with news-like stories that journalists don’t necessarily have time to research and write.

Here are some ideas for finding leads:

• Seize opportunities
If you happen to witness something interesting or important, make the most of the situation.

• Press releases and PR websites
The line between news and PR can be blurry: to take advantage of press releases, use your judgement to single out suitable material.
Research institutes, charities, companies and other organisations often issue press releases when they want to announce something they consider newsworthy. Many organisations include press releases on their websites. Some allow you to subscribe to them by email and an increasing number also post them on Twitter. If your interest is broader than the news of a particular organisation, check out some PR websites, such as Journalism.co.uk (http://www.journalism.co.uk/) or PR Newswire (www.prnewswire.co.uk), which cover numerous subject matters, or some subject-specific PR sites, like the food-focused Food&Drink Towers (http://foodanddrinktowers.com). To find more PR sites, do an online search. Be aware that some of these websites require their subscribers to have published news stories previously.

• Twitter
Tweets are nowadays frequently used as the basis for news-like stories on what someone famous has said. At times they can also reveal breaking news. For example, the raid of Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan was first reported on Twitter. If you’re not familiar with how to use Twitter effectively, read the Twitter Basics page (http://support.twitter.com/groups/31-twitter-basics).

• Public information
The Government and public bodies include news and other current information on their websites. For example, the UK National Statistics website (www.statistics.gov.uk) regularly posts updates on a range of themes. Basing your news-like stories on statistical data can actually be interesting provided you make them meaningful and bring your numbers alive.

Public bodies are obliged to release information (within limits) to individuals under the Freedom of Information Act. Journalists regularly use this to uncover information that’s not readily available. You can find out more about this research tool on www.ico.gov.uk/for_the_public/official_information.aspx.

• News as a source
‘News is a vital source of information about current affairs,’ says Simon. It’s virtually impossible not to come across news in everyday life: newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts, as well as online news, surround us. But when you want to search for something specific, you need to know where to go.

If you’re after newspapers, you can read them in libraries. Local libraries tend to stock local newspapers; research libraries’ newspaper provision varies. The British Library Newspaper Reading Room in Colindale, North London, has the most comprehensive collection in the UK (www.bl.uk/reshelp/inrrooms/blnewspapers/newsrr.html).

You can also access newspapers online although their news coverage tends not to be identical to their print versions. To find online newspapers, browse online directories, such as Online Newspapers (www.onlinenewspapers.com), World Press (www.theworldpress.com) and Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com/).

If you’re looking to understand the background and/or implications of news, current affairs magazines, like the New Statesman (http://www.newstatesman.com/), can be useful. Their articles are analytical and more explanatory as opposed to the straightforward factual reporting found in general news articles.

If you want to be up to date with the latest news, follow online news aggregation sites, such as Google News (http://news.google.co.uk), Yahoo! News (http://uk.news.yahoo.com), NewsNow (www.newsnow.co.uk), Rocketnews (www.rocketnews.com) and World News (http://wn.com). News agencies around the world also tend to have news on their websites. You can find a list of them on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_news_agencies.

To find news on specific topics, use an online news search engine (eg http://news.google.co.uk; http://news.search.yahoo.com). To keep up to date with what’s happening without having to do your searches again and again, subscribe to email alerts, newsletters and/or RSS feeds. For example, Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts) allows you to set your keyword(s), choose how often you want to receive the alerts and what kinds of results to include. When you’re writing your keywords, be as specific as possible – otherwise you’ll end up with lots of irrelevant news. However, if this happens, click on ‘Manage your alerts’ and redefine your preferences.

When you rely on news for information, Simon advises to pay attention to the source they come from: impartiality and reliability are essential. Sources that are sloppy with facts or that deliberately distort stories to achieve more grabbing headlines will give you skewed information. Also bear in mind that because news pieces are produced quickly they may lack some pertinent information. As Voltaire said, ‘In the case of news, we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.’

Time-saving tip
To stay up to date with what’s happening in the world, listen to radio news while you’re doing something else, like driving to work or cooking. Choose a station that has quality news and current affairs stories, such as BBC Radio 4.

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